Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky’s historic speech to a joint session of Congress properly received a great deal of attention this week. The former comedian turned international leader reminds us not only of the stakes in a country under siege, but that courage and character in the face of great adversity is the very essence of political leadership.
Zelensky’s incredible performance, literally under fire, has summoned comparisons to Winston Churchill’s leadership in 1940. As the Financial Times noted, Zelensky “never aspired to be a war leader. Yet it is precisely his empathy and communication skills, teamed with exceptional guts, that have turned him into the voice of his people and their resistance, and a symbol of modern Ukrainian identity.”
A remarkable gesture by the prime ministers of Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovenia received less attention, but the dangerous rail journey to Kiev undertaken by the eastern European leaders not only demonstrated solidarity with Zelensky but was also noteworthy for the courage and character the leaders displayed. Both moments will live in history.
If only we could count on a bit more character and courage in our own politics.
Yet, having said that I detected something genuinely encouraging amid all the usual partisan brawling and useless backbiting. Some courage and character broke out.
Utah senator Mitt Romney spoke again, as he has in the past, in support of American democracy, and specifically in support of courage and character. At a fundraising event for embattled Wyoming Republican Liz Cheney, Romney received a standing ovation when he said, “People of character and courage have stood up for right at times when others want to look away. Such a person is Liz Cheney.”
Cheney, of course, is under assault from the fact-free Trumpian alt right and the former president for having the gumption to stand up to our own home-grown anti-Zelensky. Cheney seems determined to get the full story of the January 6 Capitol insurrection no matter where the truth leads.
Here at home, Romney said, “what has kept us from falling in with the same kind of authoritarian leader as Vladimir Putin are the strengths of our institutions, the rule of law, our courts, Congress, and so forth.” That so forth includes character and courage.
Another prominent western Republican had much the same message this week. Writing in the Washington Post, two-term Montana governor and former Republican National Committee chairman Marc Racicot said: “Rarely stopping to inventory the essential qualities in human character, we all know them when we see them: decency, honesty, humility, honor and faithfulness.”
Racicot said his purpose in speaking out about the unfitness of the “leader” of the Republican Party “was to urge all Americans of good sense and honest purpose to confront, define and vindicate the truth. Sometimes that truth has sharp edges, but nonetheless, it is still the truth. This is one of those times.
“And so it must be said again: Donald Trump does not possess the essential qualities of character to lead this nation, most especially in a time of crisis.”
Racicot, typically a measured, quiet man not given to overstatement, was scathing and specific in denouncing Trump’s truly disgusting comments about Putin’s war on Ukraine. “If the former president’s recent remarks about Ukraine had amounted to just another ration of narcissistic self-indulgence, it would have been briefly noted, but not thoroughly examined. Such patent nonsense has become, after all, predictable and expected.”
The former Republican chairman went on: “The vicious actions of the Russian president have been universally condemned by decent people everywhere. But not by Trump. To the contrary, the former president could express only his admiration of the Russian president’s tactics — describing them as ‘savvy,’ ‘smart’ and ‘genius.’
“There is no record of anybody else, other than Trump, anywhere, at any time during this Russian massacre, who has described Vladimir Putin’s actions as ‘savvy,’ ‘smart’ and ‘genius.’”
Racicot said the former president’s remarks display a shocking “lack of maturity and morality” as Putin’s artillery and missiles rain down death on hospitals and schools in Ukraine.
The conclusion of Racicot’s piece in the Post spoke directly to those politicians who duck and cover rather than confront the character and courage issues that confront their party and our county.
“Those who, during this painful moment in human history, find any redeeming value or humor in the former president’s remarks; or who continue to ignore his profound lack of knowledge or intellectual curiosity; or who excuse his lack of regard for the truth; or who consciously or unconsciously modify the priorities of their own character or moral imperatives to secure his favor, or the favor of his disciples, might do well to remember the words of author J.M. Smith: ‘If you dance with the devil, then you haven’t got a clue, for you think you’ll change the devil, but the devil changes you.’”
Donald Trump did not create the deep fissures that have contributed an America that is more divided, less civil, more mean and less committed to truth. Those attributes, sadly, have long been features of a sprawling, diverse nation that has too rarely confronted its own contradictions.
But Trump, his willing accomplices and those afraid to speak truth about him have exploited division and distrust for the basest of reasons – power and punishment. Maybe the Trumpian fever is about to break – we can hope – since Trump endorsed candidates in several states are floundering.
Still, hoping the stench goes away naturally does not absolve Republicans in Congress, statehouses and city councils from the moral decisions they have made to tolerate this intolerable man and the damage he has done to American democracy. By lack of courage, they have made lack of character acceptable in the highest office of the land.
We cannot predict the future of the brave people of Ukraine or that of their determined president. The future may well hold much more death and destruction with implications far beyond eastern Europe. There is little reason for optimism, but at this historic moment Volodymyr Zelensky and the country he leads reminds us of what truly matters – courage and character.
Celebrate that. Embrace that. Demand that of our leaders.
A few other items that may be of interest …
MLB’s new collective bargaining agreement fails to address players’ biggest grievances
I’m eager for baseball, but really frustrated by the owner’s lockout and the agreement that – finally – emerged. A good explainer here from Victor Matheson, a sports economist at Holy Cross.
“Baseball junkies will notice several cosmetic changes to the game right away: an expanded postseason, sponsor advertisements on jerseys and a designated hitter in the National League. The agreement also opens the door for rule changes in 2023 that include larger bases, limits on defensive shifts and a pitch clock. Other than some real improvements to the salaries for the league’s lowest-paid players, however, the economics of baseball’s underlying labor model remains as flawed as ever.”
“I can help them” – one man’s journey from Portland to Ukraine’s frontlines
A Portland man heads home to fight for Ukraine.
“Sergey is one of about 66,000 Ukrainians returning home to help fight the Russian invasion following President Volodymyr Zelensky’s call for Ukrainians abroad return to the homeland to fight the Russians. Korenev, whose family is Jewish, is one Ukrainian in the US answering the call.”
From The Guardian:
How the North Beat the South, Morally and Economically
A very interesting new book on dueling economies during the Civil War.
“The South was bountiful but impervious to change. In the decade before the war, cotton production jumped from 2.8 million bales to more than 4 million, and the value of its four million slaves doubled. This industry was centered in four hundred mostly contiguous counties of loamy soil that was essentially a monoculture. In the North, farmers sought to improve varieties of wheat and corn. They invested in farm and machinery. Southern planters felt no need to innovate. There was scarcely any patent activity in cotton and little investment in machines. They scarcely invested in capital goods. It was cheaper to breed Negroes.”
The book is Ways and Means: Lincoln and His Cabinet and the Financing of the Civil War by Roger Lowenstein.
Here is the link to an excerpt:
Cooking with Dorothy Sayers
Loved this piece from The Paris Review.
“Dorothy Sayers was said to enjoy both food and drink in great quantities. And her characters do as well.”
That’s it for this week. Thanks for following alone. Stay well and be in touch.